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Writing as an “opportunity for redemption” She was the first Native American woman to master the language of the “whites” perfectly.
In 1883 she publishes her autobiography, a precious text in the understanding of the encounter/clash between a misleading culture and one which struggles to survive by Lorena Carbonara
It’s 1883: the American nation is undergoing full reconstruction about twenty years after the end of the abolitionist Civil War, the extremist group known as the Ku Klux Klan continues to expand and the first Native American woman to write a book publishes Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Sarah Winnemucca grew up in a territory somewhere between California and Nevada, and is the grandchild of Chief Winnemucca, or Captain Truckee, leader of the nomadic Piutes tribe. In her first years of life she learns to understand the white man and his tongue and soon becomes an interpreter and scout in the impervious territories of the frontier. Her native land has been invaded by what the young Sarah calls “the owl faces”, who have gradually got rid of the customs and way of life of her people.
In the first chapter of Life among the Piutes – an autobiography that over the course of the narration becomes auto-ethno-graphical – the writer tells of the arrival of the “white brothers” in her territory and describes them as “roaring lions” that slowly threaten the culture of her people, insinuating themselves physically and psychologically into the life of the tribe. By using a series of fascinating images, Winnemucca grasps the deeper sense of the cultural encounter/clash which was happening on the American frontier: for instance, the picture attached to a piece of paper that her grandfather carries with him the day after a meeting with a group of settlers. A piece of paper, a letter, that “speaks” to her grandfather and which “travels with the wind” until it reaches the remotest of people, like in a sort of spell.
The fascination that the written word exercised over the native soul is witnessed in the pages dedicated to this subject in Winnemucca’s text. The writer, in fact, deals at length with the magic that takes place every time her grandfather “looks” at that piece of paper and “speaks” with it: “If they can do things like that then they can be no other than spirits”, she says, bewitched by the whites’ system of writing. The irony is that it is of course by means of several slips of “magic” paper that her people’s destiny is decided, by means of various treaties signed by Indian chiefs ceding the lands to the Anglo-Americans. And yet, even though it is a symbol of colonization, for Winnemucca and for all the first generation of native authors during the 19th and the early 20th century, writing becomes an opportunity to redeem and vindicate themselves.
In fact, the use of the English language will help them to reach a wider public and to tell the story of their subjection from a new point of view. But it is not only that. The first native works in the English language, whose aesthetic qualities have been discussed at length and defended alongside their documentary value, gives the careful reader a chance to grasp the nuances of a culture struggling for survival within another, misleading one. In this process, the ambivalent value of the act of writing itself emerges, in a people who for centuries had handed down its history orally, through the art of storytelling: use the language of the colonizer, learnt at the cost of extinguishing one’s own culture, in order to tell the truth, or keep quiet.
“We don’t have anything if we don’t have the stories”, says the contemporary native writer Leslie Marmon Silko, and it would seem to be true… The stories represent the essence of a people that, through them, give form and meaning to the experiences of worldly and other-worldly life, spheres which come together in native culture. And that is how Sarah Winnemucca, whose native name is Thocmentony (shell flower), condenses the spirit of her time, made up of native stories that weave in and out of white stories and completely new narratives fruit of the mixing of two worlds. And if it is true that all human beings contain within themselves an entire universe, then what of Sarah, born amongst the Piutes and raised amidst whites?